My favourite Welsh garden, other than my own of course, is Dewstow Gardens in Caerwent, Monmouthshire. Not the biggest, not the grandest, not the best known, but for me, without a doubt, the most enchanting garden of all. These magical gardens are made up of tunnels, grottoes, rills, ponds and sunken ferneries which, as well as offering so much present day pleasure, also harbour the most incredible history; they were in fact ‘lost gardens’ for 50 years.
In 1895 Henry Oakley, or Squire Oakley, who then owned the Dewstow Estate, commissioned James Pulham and Sons, Rock Builders and Garden Designers to build him a magical garden in which he could indulge his love of plants. And they did. A labyrinth of underground grottoes and ferneries were constructed out of rock, rubble, wire mesh, sand, cement and the Pulham’s own special secret ingredient, Pulhamite. The project took nearly 25 years to complete. After the Second World War, food was more important than fancy gardens and the whole landscaped area was filled in with thousands and thousands of tonnes of soil and returned to pasture land.
John Harris bought the house and gardens ‘as somewhere to live’ in 2000. The family already owned Dewstow Golf Course so, as John explained, ‘it was also a case of bringing the estate back together.’
John continues, “We began tidying up parts of the garden and although some of the grottos could still be seen most of the garden had been filled in and returned to pasture after the War. We uncovered steps and just kept digging; I remember crawling through a tunnel and thinking how incredible it was that I was the first person through there in 50 years. I haven’t done much of the work myself,” he admits, “we used the green keeping staff and machinery from the golf course. Once we started to uncover things interest just grew. Clearing the garden turned into a 6 year excavation project.”
Whilst John’s family farmed the surrounding land for 25 years, his time and expertise were put into running the Golf Course next door. “I’m not from a gardening background at all,” he admits, “ it’s all like electrics to me, I’m not a gardener at all. But I am really interested in the history of it all and I do walk around the garden every single day. We are planning to put much more effort into the gardens this year and want to share them with as many people as possible. We can take coach parties and we have a lovely little cafe, or visitors can also use the Golf Course restaurant. We already hold events in the garden but will be doing much more this year.”
One event already in the diary is a trip down memory lane with the National Garden Scheme as John explains, “Dewstow first opened to the public in 1927, also the year that the National Garden Scheme (gardens open for charity) was launched. We were one of their first gardens, what was known as a ‘pioneer garden.’ This year the NGS are presenting a plaque to us to commemorate that. Back then it was a shilling to enter and they took £7 in the first year.”
Today you can visit Dewstow for just £6.50 (concessions £5.50) It is open from the 19th March and is just a ‘rock’s throw’ from the M4 www.dewstow.co.uk